This is my favorite photograph.
I had the honor of witnessing this moment, and preserving it with a point-and-shoot camera, in 2002. Vaughn was three years old.
Today is his birthday.
Vaughn died in 2007. I mark his dates of birth and death each year a new calendar. I don't know how long I will do that. Even ten years later, I honor each of these days.
Ten years later, I miss him every day.
The rough edge on my grief has worn to a smoother, more polished finish. There are a few prickly parts yet, and those surface when I come across something of his - a coat, collar, or medical record.
My memories of him are maddeningly fuzzy. There were so many pieces of our relationship, so many adventures we had, so many amazingly poignant and breathtaking moments during his last 18 months in hospice . . . I can't remember them as well as I thought I always would. I'm writing down the stories that come to me to keep those details. Those are adventures I enjoy revisiting on his anniversaries.
This one is thanks to Jamie Piper of Cowbelly Pet Photography (2006).
People often ask me how long the grief lasts.
My reply is "as long as love"
This relationship you are in now is one of the most important of your life. You vulnerably share your ups and downs with someone who accepts you as you are, loves you, and does not pass judgment. You are a team. Your mistakes have no place in the relationship because they are never held against you.
That's a difficult relationship to lose.
Grief is a new way of being with someone you love.
I grieved when I learned Vaughn's liver was failing. I grieved while I provided the best care for him, feeling that no matter what I did, it would never be enough. I grieved knowing I could not be with him longer. I grieved for the loss of the life I had before I had a 145 lb. hospice patient. I felt horribly broken the moment I knew that he would die within hours, and he wanted help.
As I recall all of this my eyes are blurred with tears.
Love changes over time. I love him differently this year than I did last year. I love him differently today than I did ten years ago. His spirit remains the same to me and I continue to evolve by practicing so many of the things he graciously modeled for me.
I expect I'll mark this date on my calendar for a long, long time.
Death is a funny thing.
We don't like to talk about it, so we don't. We know when we sign up to join our lives with adopted animal family that we'll experience death. We know it will tear us apart, and we do it anyway.
Yesterday I sat down with a friend whose beloved dog died in the summer of 2016. These two did nearly everything together, and this dog, Ray, wasn't supposed to be this man's dog. He was supposed to be his son's dog.
Ray knew who he was here to love.
My friend told me that did would never love another dog again. I have an idea of how he feels, just like you do. It seems impossible and reckless to subject yourself to that kind of pain again.
We do it.
We do it because we need to love and be loved. I think we also do it because these souls come into our lives and demand it. Just like Ray did.
This time passes so quickly. We count on having another day, another week, one more month, or maybe even a year. Lots of time. When death comes it feels like a giant punch in the stomach.
I want to make an appeal to you.
Love fully today.
If you are providing hospice care for someone you love, please see that as a gift of quality of life. You give comfort and grace where there might otherwise be very little. That care is about life, not about death.
If you are nurturing someone through a difficult illness, recovery, or a long-term condition, find the beauty in those small moments that make up your days. Sure, the medication is unglamorous, as is cleaning up all varieties of bodily fluids (and not-so-fluids). You do that out of love.
That hint of a smile you see is real. She loves you. She is grateful for you. She wants to be with you above anyone else in the world, no matter how she feels.
Love this today. Find those little things that make your days together. Those are the moments that take up the most space in your heart.
My friend has very few photographs of Ray. The ones he has are of his younger years. He cherishes those, and yesterday he told me he wished he had more - any, really - of Ray's last months. He wanted to see the experience of life in his silver muzzle. He wanted to see an image of how even with arthritis and reduced vision, Ray was still Ray. That heart and soul that radiated love was just as big, gracious, and lovely as it had been when he was a puppy.
At the time he didn't want photographs because he was anticipating his grief after Ray's death. He thought those photographs would be too grim. Those are the ones he wishes he had today. He said goodbye to Ray 10 months ago. He looks at one photograph every day that adorns his desk. Ray was two years old. He said something that got me yesterday about the comparison between what he sees when he looks at young Ray and what he saw when he looked at experienced Ray.
"I saw myself in him. I saw his love for me and my love for him. That wasn't there in this picture."
My friend held the photograph on his desk as he said this. Those early images of Ray are missing how their relationship changed each other. He sees that.
I can't give him photographs of Ray. I did photograph Ray's paw print his veterinarian made shortly after he died. it's not the same. These are not the photographs he wants.
Naturally, I'm tearing as I write this. This is why this work is so important. This is why it's never the wrong time to commission photography. While we plan as well as we can for a good day, sometimes that doesn't happen; honestly, those albums full of the hard days are some of my favorites because the emotion and connection between dog and human is so intense.
So . . . it's tissue time for me.
Please love today. See those little things. See the reflection of yourself and how you've changed for the better because of this hairy beast who used to chase squirrels and now barely turns her head as they run by.
This is a beautiful, focused, reflective time of life for you both. When you want to invite me to see this love with you, I'll be there. That way you'll always have it to look upon.
I'm Shannon, and I love and am loved by four Great Danes, four cats, and one horse (four Danes, one cat, and one horse are no longer walking this earth). Here I'll share stories of my adventures in grief photography for companion animals, my own grief journey, and thoughts on caregiving.